Ninth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education

2014 July 31 - August 03

Body, Brain and
Personal Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani

Abstract: Eric T. Olson
Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield, UK

Person, organism, brain
What sort of thing is a person? What am I? More generally, what sort of thing is a conscious, thinking being? It seems that this question must have an answer: conscious beings must belong to some kind or other. Perhaps the most intuitive answer, and the one favoured by biologists, is that we are organisms. Another, favoured by some neuroscientists, is that each of us is a brain, or a part of a brain--the part responsible for thought and consciousness. Strictly speaking, each of is composed entirely of yellowish-pink tissue and weighs just over a kilogram. These views cannot both be true: I can’t be both a 70-kg organism and a 1-kg brain. (For what it’s worth, most philosophers reject both, though they don’t agree on any alternative view).
I want to examine problems facing the brain view. The view implies that it is metaphysically impossible for any biological organism to have any mental property. It is a sort of dualism: a dualism not of mind and matter, but of mind and life. Friends of the brain view need to explain why only brains, and not organisms, can think or be conscious. The likely answer is this: organisms are “too big” to be conscious because they have parts (feet, for example) not directly involved in mental processes. The general principle is that a thinking, conscious being has to be made up entirely of the things directly involved in its mental processes. Organisms are conscious only in the loose sense of having a conscious part: a part of the brain. For a number of reasons, this principle appears unsustainable. I think we are organisms.